Togo is a tiny country on the west coast of Africa. It is home to some peculiar and a few interesting cultural attractions. One of the most disturbing and gruesome, is the Akodésséwa Fetish Market, which is the biggest voodoo market in the world. Vodun or Voodoo permeates the fabric of this country as for at least 50% of the 2.5 million population, voodoo is a way of life.
The fact that voodoo has such an important place in the beliefs and lives of the Togo people really explains a lot about some of the strange, crazy and at times incredulous experiences that we had while there!
1. Accosted at the US Embassy
On our second day of being in Lome, the capital city of Togo, we decided to go for a walk around some of the biggest attractions of the city. We were passing by the United States Embassy and noticed the colorful murals that are painted around the walls of it.
Well, let me back up. The United States Embassy in Lome does not have any signs or visible flags (especially from our vantage point). Therefore at that moment, we had thought that we were looking at pretty murals. Not the outer walls of an embassy. As we know too well not to take pictures anywhere near an embassy.
I raised my phone to take a shot of the colorful mural when a security officer dressed in military clothes, including a gun, rushed towards me yelling in French. (the national language of the country). I lowered my phone, without taking a picture and started walking away. The man ran towards me pointing his gun and tore the phone out of my hands. He then ran towards his booth about 30 meters away.
Confused and upset I ran after him. As he yelled at me and gesticulated violently I tried to explain that there was no picture on my phone. If only he would allow me to show him, he would see that. However, he refused to allow me to touch my own phone. In addition, he demanded that I also give him our passports. Which, of course I refused.
The security guard was threatening us with jail time and not being able to leave the country if we did not give him our passports. His anger was visceral, spittle flying as he yelled. Veins popping as he gestured to his gun. As threatening as he could possibly be.
The man, then got on his phone. I tried to understand what was being said and thought that perhaps he was speaking with someone inside the embassy. So I did what I do best in all of these types of situations. I started to scream as loud and as tortured as I possibly could. This technique had saved me in many places in the past, including when I was almost robbed in Vanuatu.
Given the commotion, some individuals did come out of the embassy. These men spoke in English. They apologized for the behavior of their rabid pit bull security guard (my description, not theirs). My phone was returned to me. With our hearts pounding we left the scene of no crime (as we did not do anything wrong). However, we were lucky. This could of ended very badly for us.
2. Horrors of Akodessawa Fetish Market
The Akodessawa Fetish Market is located in Lome, the capital of Togo. It is the biggest fetish market in the world, Our wonderful driver, who was driving us from Benin to Togo thought it would be a good place to take us. Well, Eli was right on all the other stops. However, this one was a gruesome and disturbing destination that I still cannot get out of my mind.
Once inside the market you see a myriad of stalls filled with dead animal heads, pelts and body parts. There are dead monkey heads and parts of elephants and rhinoceroses, snakes, members of the deer and the antelope families and the like. These stalls encircle a square and although this is an open air market, the stench is palatable and lasting. I was trying to be respectful but the nausea was just rising in my system and I felt faint.
Next up, our Akodessawa Fetish Market guide wanted to take us to see the voodoo priest. Again, we relented hoping that this would take us out of the grotesque area. The voodoo priest was nothing more than a young boy dressed in robes and trying to sell us overpriced amulets. When everything in this country sells for pennies, he wanted $15 USD for a small rock that he promised would bring us success and protection. Another tourist trap.
However, vodun (the proper name) or voodoo (as we call it) plays a huge role in the beliefs and daily lives of the people of Togo and many other West African countries. Vodun has a long tradition here. Centuries ago, slaves from Africa brought Yoruba gods to the Caribbean and South America.
There, these African gods were mixed with the saints of Christianity and the symbols of the Catholic Church. And in time, the meanings of all these spiritual entities changed. When former slaves and their families migrated back to West Africa they developed a voodoo cult in the country of origin of their families.
It is typical to have a family in Togo go to church on a Sunday and then hold a vodun ceremony on the same day. Vodun is not viewed as evil (as it is in most western countries), It is viewed as something good, something positive that connects them to their ancestors and protects them from evil.
3. Disagreement with Nudity
Walking on the main avenue of Lome we encountered a woman who was having an argument with a group of other women. It was clear that she was very unhappy about something and the focus of her discontent were the others. However, just yelling was not enough. In the middle of many lanes of traffic she proceeded to strip off her clothes.
Once she was completely naked, the lady charged her enemies with her completely naked body. Police drove past this bizarre scene and did not stop. Others walked by with not a care or a glance back. Peculiar we thought and crossed the street. However what came next was our 4th cray encounter.
4. Typical Naked Day on the Beach
As I mentioned already, we encountered a distraught lady on the main avenue that stripped naked and charged her enemies. A few minutes later as we continued walking down the coastal road and came across yet another naked woman. Yet this one was not angry or distraught. She was clearly a local, carrying fruit in a basket on her head and just walking with a purpose and direction on the sand.
Again, no one intervened and no one gawked (except maybe us). Later, we asked locals if this was typical behavior in Lome. And again no one seemed phased, saying, ” odd things happen in Lome and Togo overall…we just don’t pay attention to it…”
5. The Magic of Young Talent
With all of these crazy and odd experiences we were starting to feel uneasy in Togo. Yet, just a block from our hotel we found a young man who was making art all on his own. By using mud and straw he was creating different motorcycles, airplanes, helicopters, trucks and other forms of transportation as art. He did not want anything from us, just quietly wanted to share his art.
After our other experiences in Lome, we were pretty depleted. However this young artist brought so much joy to our day and reminded us that there is magic wherever we go. We just have to look for it.
Wrap Up: Our 5 Crazy Experiences in Togo
After the wonders and the warmth of Benin, Togo was full of crazy and unusual experiences. It is a good representation of how 2 countries that are so similar in geography and proximity can be so so wildly different in culture and feel.
From being accosted by the guard at the United States Embassy to our very odd experiences with the people of this country and the gruesomeness of the Akodessawa Fetish Market, we thought we were done. And then we discovered the lovely young man who was making art out of mud and straw – out of virtually nothing.
It is clear to us that there is magic wherever we go. We just have to look for it. Have you found magic along your travels? We would love to hear about it in the comments! Please do share the wonders of this amazing planet that we are lucky to call our home.